Effectively Communicating with Teens

Communication is the exchange of thoughts, ideas and information. “Exchange” would be the key word in that sentence, because most adults feel like communicating with a teen is a one-way street. During adolescence, it is fairly typical for a child to confide less in adults and more in friends. Although adults should not overreact to this normal developmental process, there are definitely ways to develop and maintain positive, open, and effective communication with youth. When teens and adults communicate better, daily conflicts can be solved more easily which reduces stress for both parties. Additionally, studies have proven that parents are their teens’ greatest influence when it comes to family values, expectations and choices concerning tough issues like sex and drugs, so good communication is vital in these areas. Here are several tips for keeping the lines of communication open:

  • Active listening. Active listening is when you are not thinking about anything else other than what is being said to you. When a teen is talking to you, you should be spending time trying to understand his or her viewpoint or feelings, not trying to develop arguments or rebuttals to what he or she is saying. You do not have to agree or disagree with him; just make him aware that you understand how he feels. Do not try to explain away his emotions. Truly listening to children builds trust and lets them know that adults are interested in their thoughts, ideas and feelings, even if they still don’t get their own way. Stop what you are doing and look at the teenager with proper attention. The teen should not be talking to a newspaper or your back. Ask questions that go beyond “yes” or “no” answers to prompt more developed conversation.
  • Clear, consistent messages. Adults must model the behavior you want, ensure your nonverbal body language matches what you’re saying and avoid mixed signals. Parents, you need to state your values and expectations clearly, so there is no question as to how you feel or what you mean. Use your values to explain the limits you place on your child. Be especially clear about your expectations for rules and limits and the consequences for misbehavior, even if you have to write them down. Your values bond you as a family.
  • Include them in decision-making. When appropriate, involve the teenager in decision making and setting consequences for his or her behavior. They will feel ownership of the mistake when they’ve helped set up the consequences.
  • Become an “askable” adult. Encourage teens to come to you when they need help by reacting in a nonjudgmental way and helping them solve their problems. You can only be assured that you are effectively communicating with a teen if you have your emotions under control. Do not overreact to what is said. Remember, sometimes teenagers say things that are designed to get a reaction from adults. Think before you open your mouth.
  • Find time to spend together. Parents need to create situations in which communication can occur (during car rides or while you are doing chores together, such as standing in the line at the supermarket or folding laundry at home). You have to be physically close to your teenager for communication to occur. Additionally, be sure to use the time you have together to connect, for example, don’t sit at the dinner table reading today’s mail. Try getting involved in something that your teen is involved in, even if it is just attending their games. This will give you a common topic to talk about. If your schedules are hectic, schedule in time doing something your teen likes to do.
  • Be positive. During the time you spend together, talk about what is good in your life, even if it is trivial. For instance, you could tell them you learned something new, you like your friend’s new hair cut, you’re looking forward to an upcoming event, etc. Don’t pressure anyone to converse back, just let it happen. Enjoy the time. Modeling this positive behavior for your teen will get them to start looking for the positive in their own lives – and then you’ll get to hear about it. Also, don’t dwell on mistakes, failures, misbehaviors, or something they forgot to do. Give them positive communication and talk about their successes, accomplishments, interests, and appropriate behavior.
  • Don’t criticize. While a teen’s actions may have upset and worried you, you can take steps to handle those problems. Mistakes are often the best teachers. Criticism will only tear down your teen’s self-esteem.
  • Avoid power struggles. No one needs to be right in a conversation. Opinions are owned by the person who holds them. Allowing a teen to own their opinions will turn a potential power struggle into a conversation where you both win and learn a little bit more about each other. If you’re trying to reach a decision, your goal should be to have the communication move toward a compromise situation.
  • Be discreet. Keep your thoughts to yourself around other people when you are upset. You will alienate your teen if you share their dirty laundry with neighbors or extended family. This will break down trust.
  • Use the media to bring up topics. Watch whatever teens are watching on TV, listen to their music, and read whatever teens are reading. Tough topics come up in the media all of the time. When you use these to talk to your teen, it takes the personal edge off, since your aren’t discussing anything that is actually happening in their lives. It gives you an opportunity to share your values and pearls of wisdom in a nonjudgmental way.
  • Focus on their interests. Talk to them about what excites them (e.g., music, sports, computers, dance-team practice, cars, motorcycles). Have conversations with them when you are not trying to make a point, to teach them something, or to impress them. Talk to them just to talk and to have positive verbal interaction.
  • Avoid talking too much. Repeating lectures, questioning excessively, or using other forms of communication that will result in the teenager turning a deaf ear to you. For parents in discipline situations, simply restate the rules and the consequence previously agreed on and that you expect your teen will follow through with it.
  • Share Your Experiences. When talking to teens about a problem they are having, tell them a similar story from your past. They will appreciate hearing what came out of your experience and will also feel that they are not the only one going through this type of situation.
  • Admit Your Mistakes. It’s important to admit when you’re wrong and apologize for what you might have said or done. It builds trust and teaches children that it is okay to be wrong and how to apologize.
  • Tell Them You Love Them. Parents, don’t forget to tell your kids that you love them. Yes, they may roll their eyes at you or act like they don’t care, but they do. Just don’t tell them in front of their friends.

As teens travel along the road to adulthood, they can be so intent on proving their independence that they clash with everything adults say. Opening lines of communication takes time and patience, so go slow and don’t let setbacks derail your efforts. You will see slow changes over time. If you’re not seeing any progress, start by taking a good look at how you act and react when talking with the teen. If a teen’s communication is deteriorating fast, talk with a professional and get some help. If you are the teen’s parent, you can call your teen’s doctor or school guidance counselor and explaining what is happening and what you are trying to do. They will have a list of local services available to you.


  • One thing I’ve found helpful is to have a conversation with my son as though I’m a consultant. The way I do this is to ask what he wants and why, then outline clear expectations on how to get there.

    For example, he wanted to buy a car and we sat down and came up with a plan. I asked him what he would need and so we priced a car at about $5,000, then he came up with different ideas for jobs, and then we discussed how to get started. I didn’t tell him what to do, I just helped guide him and talk through ideas.

    My son and I have used a lot of the lessons at a site called preparemykid.com to look at different topics without me having to lecture him.

  • Pingback: communicating with your teen | Jamie Rishikof, Psy.D. | Blog

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